The firestorm over John Kelly's handling of domestic abuse allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter is putting new scrutiny on his military career.
Democrats have asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to investigate how Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who's now the White House chief of staff, handled misconduct cases while he was on active duty, including “physical and sexual assault or harassment.”
After his defense of Porter conflicted with the FBI's version, there has been renewed attention to two-year-old reports that Kelly served as a character witness for a Marine colonel who sexually harassed female subordinates. Now Democrats are asking for a probe into how he handled similar complaints against staff who were under his command.
“For the decade I have been working to reform how the military prosecutes sexual assault cases, I have seen a systemic pattern of commanders excusing the behavior of favored subordinates, even overthrowing court martial convictions, and protecting them from appropriate punishment,” California Rep. Jackie Speier said on Thursday. “Since General Kelly excused and protected Mr. Porter, I think it is appropriate to review how he handled cases in the military.”
After allegations that Porter had verbally and physically abused his two ex-wives and a former girlfriend came out in the media, Kelly initially defended him as a “man of true integrity and honor.”
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” he said, and reportedly urged him to stay in the job before telling staff that he had gotten Porter’s resignation 40 minutes after he learned of the severity of the allegations. According to the FBI’s timeline, the White House knew the full extent of them long before.
California Rep. Mark Takano and Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern also signed the letter to Mattis, which asks for records “of instances in which General Kelly testified for, overturned, dismissed, or declined to investigate complaints regarding personnel under his command.”
They are asking the Pentagon for a list of trials and hearings in which Kelly served as a character witness for personnel accused of misconduct, including physical and sexual assault and harassment, and the command climate surveys for the last five commands Kelly held.
The controversy that followed Porter’s resignation brought back into focus Kelly's 2016 defense of a Marine who was accused of assault.
Kelly was one of four current and former military officers who testified at the court-martial of Col. Todd Shane Tomko, who admitted he had sent explicit messages to a female subordinate. Charging documents also said he had “forcibly kissed” a female Marine corporal in 2014. Kelly testified that he had a reputation as an upstanding leader and that “socially, he’s a great Marine.”
Tomko was later charged with “taking indecent liberties with a child” in 2017.
When Kelly retired in 2016, he was the US military’s longest-serving general. He served as the head of US Southern Command for four years under President Barack Obama and as a commanding general in Iraq from 2008 to 2009.
Since joining the Trump administration as Homeland Security secretary and then the White House, Kelly's military background has mainly been seen through the lens of the discipline he would instill in the chaotic West Wing. Critics said his military service is used by White House officials to shield him from criticism.
“If you wanna go after General Kelly, that’s up to you, but I think that — if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in October, when Kelly was criticized for making false claims about a member of Congress.